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The Repatriation of W. B. Yeats
On a two-storey yellow-and-white building near the tip of Cap Martin, a plaque, placed there by the Princess Grace Irish Library of Monaco, reads:
William Butler Yeats
The Irish poet and playwright who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 spent his last flagging months in a first-floor room overlooking the sea.
He came to the Riviera for his health and, like D. H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield before him, had trekked the Mediterranean coast – Spain, Italy and France – in search of the elusive cure.
On this, his last, visit, Yeats and his wife George reached the coast late in 1938. Their initial destination was Monaco, but after a severe attack of food poisoning, George found a more suitable retreat in nearby Roquebrune, at the Hôtel Idéal-Séjour.
His séjour was far from Idéal. Yeats’s condition worsened, and he lived for only another ten weeks.
A master of spin before the term was invented, Yeats choreographed his death as meticulously as he had stage-managed his life. One year after his death – after the first global wave of grief had died down – he was to be re-interred, as decreed in his poem Under Ben Bulben, on a mountain in County Sligo.
As befitted a place of national pilgrimage, the precise location and orientation of his grave had been specified; the type of stone: ‘limestone quarried near the spot’; and the famous cryptic epitaph:
Cast a cold eye
In his illness, he appears not to have noticed that Europe was on the brink of war. Seven months later, Hitler invaded Poland, and by June of the following year France had surrendered. By the scheduled exhumation date, the export of corpses – not an easy matter even in peacetime, (as Lawrence’s wife had found ten years earlier) was out of the question.
Although the grave had been paid for ‘en perpétuité, Yeats was not allowed to rest in peace. A few years later, his body, along with those of his sepulchral neighbours, was exhumed, their skulls detached, and their bones sent to a communal ossuary to make room for paying tenants. After the end of the war, almost a decade later, it would have been impossible, in those pre-DNA times, to say which remains were those of Yeats.
But after some diplomatic pressure, the appropriate number of body parts were collected and re-assembled, and the montage certified by fonctionnaires as authentic.
On 6 September, 1948, after military ceremonies in Roquebrune and Nice, what the Nice-Matin diplomatically called the ‘ashes’ of W. B. Yeats boarded the Irish navy’s corvette Macha and the putative remains of one of Ireland’s greatest poets began their belated journey to their final resting place, under Ben Bulben.
Twenty years earlier, in his play, Dreaming of the Bones, Yeats had written:
Have not old writers said
Had he forecast even this?